Cleopatra. What do you think of at the mention of the last pharaoh of Egypt? Eyeliner and wig might come first. Then perhaps Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, the two loves in her life. If you really push for something intrinsic to her, you’ll probably come up with a pearl, a carpet and an asp. Elizabeth Taylor always seems to pop up too, and then our ancient heroine pretty much goes out the window as the alternative love story – starting on set between Taylor and Burton – takes hold, marking the beginning of its own strange saga, history in itself. Cleopatra’s tale tends to rely on the history that surrounded her, rather than the actual person – so tells David Nixon, Artistic Director of the Northern Ballet.
A bizarre challenge, then, for the Leeds-based company to take on as their next production. Where is the sturdy thread of story? It’s all very well to know that Cleopatra was there when Caesar got done in by the Romans but that doesn’t necessarily translate into unmissable watching as she floats around in despair before running off into exile. And yet, Cleopatra herself was the most fastidious, determined, ruthless of rulers, with a booming empire, the power to bewitch any poor sod she saw, and beauty (apparently) beyond the realms of our imagination. To say this makes her an intriguing character is a pitiful understatement, and so telling her story is the mission upon which Nixon embarked as he choreographed this exuberant show.
The big love story of your typical ballet – complete with wronged heroine at the helm – is not what you get with our Egyptian queen, the enigmatic temptress who murders her brother so that she can rule alone, bewitches Julius Caesar so that he doesn’t take over her empire and steals Mark Antony away from his wife. We shouldn’t like Cleopatra, we really shouldn’t. Yet, perhaps because we’re not supposed to, we really, really do; a tingle goes down your spine as she climbs to her throne alone once she’s finally got rid of her tiresome little brother, with whom she had been forced to co-rule. Lord knows what it is the audience is feeling at that precise moment. It’s not sympathy. Given the shared sense of satisfaction, I tend towards empathy, yet I don’t recall summoning my handmaidens to assist me in drowning my unassuming little brother in the bath. Seeing as I have neither a brother nor handmaidens to my name, I would struggle somewhat in this endeavour – but you get the gist; this is not a heroine with troubles to which we can easily (or even difficultly) relate.
Perhaps I should clarify matters regarding Cleopatra’s ill-fated younger sibling. In reality, Ptolemy XIII was several years younger than Cleopatra, and when their father died they were forced to rule together since women could not do so alone. The ballet’s character is portrayed as a young man, equal to his sister in size and strength, which perhaps endears the audience more to her since it does not seem as though she is taking advantage of someone so much more vulnerable. History reports that Ptolemy drowned in the Nile anyway, yet suspicion does hover over the territorial big sister concerning the death of the next brother in line who, by tradition, also had to co-rule. The Northern Ballet rather wisely simplifies this murky family history but, nevertheless, it’s a brave choice to put Ptolemy’s death into Cleopatra’s bare hands when such a vicious act could immediately alienate her from the audience, leaving viewers apathetic to her fate. Not so. Every step the feisty queen takes becomes entrancing watching: you want to know what she’s going to do next, who else will get in her way, and what tricks she’ll pull. The Egyptian theme, which so easily lends itself to snaky oboe solos, equally demands the sort of saucy hip wiggling that helps to convey this sly character in the most charismatic of fashions.
Next, in storms Caesar with all the majesty you could expect (let’s ignore the fact that he was technically already there). Despite Cleopatra’s attempts to seduce him and neutralise his risk to her throne (insert cunning carpet trick here), she is faced by a rival ruler with an impressive army at his disposal. Nixon choreographs a wonderful move where Caesar angrily puts his hand up to Cleopatra’s jaw, asserting his power over her. In a moment that could have sealed her doom, Cleopatra swiftly turns things around and lowers her head into Caesar’s palm. She thus appears to submit to him, not only removing herself as an adversarial threat but toying with his affections by coyly reeling him in. From here starts a love story that seems genuine, genteel and – dare I say – traditional, and takes the couple back to Rome where history tells us that Cleopatra was not very warmly welcomed. General anarchy is clearly rife in the ballet and an intimidating Rite of Spring-esque group scene ensues. Both men and women are drenched in rich scarlet cloaks that fly with every flinch thanks to their ominous swathes and hoods, accentuating a daunting vision of unrest.
When Caesar is stabbed in the back, Cleopatra returns to Egypt and the desolate widow then has to contend with Mark Antony, who has succeeded Caesar alongside the rightful heir, Octavian. This is what the greats are made of: Cleopatra rallies in a moment and presents herself to Mark Antony as a queen, a woman, a fantasy, and we watch in awe as she puts on vast displays of decadence to feed his every desire. She knows that she has to keep him hooked and so, after having her way with him, slips off to bed so that she is fully on guard in the morning, leaving him in the capable hands of her obedient men and women who immerse him in a palpable world of pleasure. Little wonder that when his wife comes to find him, Mark Antony chooses to stay where he is.
Cleopatra is the ultimate ‘other woman’ and looks like she could squash Octavia with her little finger during their duet. Oh yes, her name is Octavia – and that snub on his sister doesn’t make Octavian very happy, so he bursts in to finish Mark Antony off and take over. Most reports have it that Mark Antony killed himself with his own sword after this dreadful defeat, although the precise details of the event seem to vary. The Northern Ballet makes it the tear-jerk moment, as Octavian leaves the destroyed Mark Antony with his sword by his side. When he can’t do the deed himself he begs Cleopatra for help, and every bit of their passion is relived in shadowed retrospect, the tired Mark Antony and the distraught Cleopatra gripping at the last bit of their time together before the inevitable has to happen. The sword comes down in one quick, sharp, shocking move, and Cleopatra is alone again.
Once more, it’s rather curious that Mark Antony’s death in the ballet falls so heavily to Cleopatra; history cites the Battle of Actium as his ruin in a naval fight which his forces lose due to number and strength, yet the ballet depicts a more intimate duel and seems to place accountability more on his general physical inadequacy, thanks to the excessive lifestyle that Cleopatra has inflicted. Whether or not this was the intention, it seems to put the blame in her hands, rather than in anyone else’s, which is another risky move for the ballet’s heroine. Yet painting her as such a siren merely draws you in further and, indeed, since the Battle of Actium probably wouldn’t have happened without Cleopatra, and it was her withdrawal of troupes that weakened Mark Antony’s chances at sea, maybe this is just a more explicit way of emphasising her part in matters.
Although Cleopatra is supposed to have killed herself in response to Mark Antony’s death, this is where the ballet’s telling of her life stops – her death is a separate matter. She’s quite clearly her own woman and taking her life is her decision – this isn’t a suicide pact, it just marks another tragic event, another lover she has lost, another aspect to her multi-faceted life.
Throughout everything, Cleopatra is watched by over by Wadjet – the cobra goddess of the pharaohs who is personified here as a male and slithers into the role of the obliging asp that eventually ends our story. In fact, this is where the Northern Ballet’s tale begins as the prologue, set at the moment of that fateful bite, leads into a flashback through her life until we arrive in a full circle at the end. Right from the beginning we know what Cleopatra’s fate will be and we’re reminded of it at every turn. At the crucial moment Wadjet falters in taking the bite, perhaps bewitched, too, by her charms. We don’t want to see an end to this headstrong, beguiling woman and seeing every bit of her life played out under the shadow of Wadjet’s teeth, poised to sink in, makes it all the more poignant when the time comes and his natural instinct fails – we want it to. Cleopatra has to draw his hand to her and make him kill her; even at the end, she’s in control.
The choreography makes use of hieroglyphics to strike recognisable poses, which are echoed throughout, some asserting authority to remind us of Cleopatra’s continual struggle with power. Her personality is perfectly portrayed and you feel as though you know her, and the men in her life, completely. She’s playful and petulant with her brother, regal yet submissive with Caesar, and downright dirty with Mark Antony. She knows how to get what she wants and how she must act, and the pas de deux for each relationship are crafted to a tee. You can see the childish competition with Ptolemy, feel the mature bond with Caesar and simply sense the passion with Mark Antony (though it might have been engineered at first). You hang off every flick of her foot, such are the temptress’ charms. That’s also down to Martha Leebolt, the extraordinary dancer who tackles this mega role each night. Her athletic and intelligent display entrenches a sense of this beautiful and powerful, though callous woman, with moments of vulnerability and moments of genius intertwined with sheer enigma.
And now to the music. It’s natural to feel nervous at the prospect of an original score (and all the plinky-plonky stuff that it threatens), yet Claude-Michel Schönberg takes inspiration from Tchaikovsky’s great big romances and Saint Saëns’ Egyptian themes to create a sumptuous, vivid image of the landscape, the characters, the events and every heightened emotion. Deep, undulating tones place us at the banks of the Nile and the frenzied beats of war throw us into Rome. Little meandering tunes here and there mark Cleopatra’s coy playfulness just as the wonderful sweeping passages mark her epic loves. At times, the lighter tunes that signal contentment sound slightly like a ‘Carry On’ film, but any risk of turning into a pantomime quickly disappears and the broader effect is the one to judge: heart-stopping.
The Northern Ballet’s mesmerising extravaganza is clever in every way – story, music, costumes, set – all of it. This new ballet will go straight into the history books alongside its star, and as it finishes its tour around the country, a reprise can’t come quickly enough. Don’t dare to miss it when it does.
Tour dates 2011
Nottingham Theatre Royal, Tue 27 Sept-Sat 1 Oct. Tel. 0115 989 5555. Book.
Woking, New Victoria Theatre, Tue 4-Sat 8 Oct. Tel. 0844 871 7645. Book.
Norwich, Theatre Royal, Tue 11-Sat 15 Oct. Tel. 01603 630 000. Book.
For production information, click here.
Photography (c) Bill Cooper